In modern societies, controlling health risks is a fundamental requirement, especially for such a sensitive field as food. Substantial progress has been made over the last fifty years. However, the horizon seems to recede as we improve our standards. While it is difficult to accept that zero risk is impossible to achieve, new and unknown dangers appear every day. What are the new challenges of our time and how can we meet them?
On Saturday 19 February the World Bank's president Robert Zoellick declared, "We need to be sensitive and have a fingertip feel on what is happening in terms of food prices and its potential effect on social instability". The price spike that occurred between June and December pushed 44 million individuals below the extreme poverty line worldwide. What is of most concern to politicians and other interested parties is not so much upward pressure on prices but the spread of volatility. Wherein lies the solution?
Contrary to widely held belief there is arable land that could be cultivated without risking further encroachment on our forests. Impetus for developing the potential has been provided by climate change. What is at stake is how to resolve tensions that will arise as competing demands are made on land resources. These will arrive from many directions not always related to satisfying demand for food and include non-food, environmental, recreational, forestry, and urban needs.
Feeding more than nine billion people by year 2050 in a sustainable way is not an impossible task provided certain conditions are met. These include limiting agricultural price instability, increasing agricultural production, reducing losses and wastage from field to plate and securing international agricultural trade.
Africa may be on the brink of revolution - a green revolution. The political will to make essential structural reforms could well be in place to foster the arrival of high-tech farming techniques, say some agricultural observers. Certainly, there is a great need: in the poorest part of the continent, the sub-Sahara, 265 million people, or 32 percent of the region's population, go hungry each day. The revolution may have already begun, optimists say, pointing to the so-called Malawi Miracle, a case study in how subsidized fertilizer and hybridized seeds transformed a chronic recipient of food aid into a country that now exports food to its neighbors. However, critics aren't so sure that the miracle is sustainable in tiny Malawi, let alone throughout vast Africa. They point to political instability (Zimbabwe is the case study on that front), limited water supplies and a weak infrastructure as major impediments.
About one out of six people in the world goes hungry on any given day. That awful fact would be somewhat understandable, though no less painful, if the cause of the hunger was simply not enough food to go around. But the world actually produces more than enough to feed all six billion of us, and has all along. The problem, say specialists who study the issue, stems largely from a combination of factors, many of which have to do with the faults of government and social policies. Natural catastrophes take their share of the blame, but the chronic villains, one leading expert says, are a lack of international solidarity when it comes to transferring agricultural technology coupled with corruption, war and a dearth of democratic institutions. With the world's population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, a 50 percent increase, the ranks of the hungry are certain to grow unless the international community does a much better job making sure that food is available for everyone's table.